The handsome Pier which your lordship has so kindly consented to open may be taken as an additional proof of the desire of the residents of this place to render their town as attractive and beneficial as possible to the numerous visitors who are in the habit of resorting thither.
It was certainly a singular thing with respect to an enterprise of this novel character, which would have been almost impossible 50 years ago, and if steam and electricity had not brought Hastings so near the metropolis. It was originally intended to associate a harbour with the pier, but that part of the scheme had been abandoned.
It happened he [Earl Granville, Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports] had not seen many of the most modern piers, but, as far as his experience went, he had never seen a more beautiful work designed for enjoyment, recreation, and restoration of health. It appeared to him that this was a peerless pier – a pier without a peer, excepting, perhaps, the unfortunate peer who had the honour of addressing them.
He would only add further that he trusted the pier would give enjoyment, recreation, and restoration of health not to hundreds, not to thousands, but to millions of their fellow-countrymen, that it would give some reasonable profit at all events to the shareholders, who had actuated not so much by purely commercial motives as by an honourable public spirit, and that it would confer all the advantages upon that ancient town and delightful watering-place which the promoters of the undertaking had a right to expect.
(Quotes from a contemporary newspaper, 6th August, 1872, reporting on the opening of Hastings Pier)
It was announced last week that the first planks of wooden decking have been laid at Hastings Pier in East Sussex. This event marks the first stage of a £14m project which will result in the historic Victorian pier reopening, Spring 2015. Back in October 2010, this iconic structure suffered 95% damage in an arson attack and its future looked very bleak indeed. But thanks to determination shown by the people of Hastings, a new chapter in the pier’s history has begun, which will see its reinvention as a vibrant seaside attraction, capable of meeting the demands of the 21st Century visitor.
The surviving Edwardian balustrade will be repaired at the Parade Extension, metal trusses, and beams, missing bracing, damaged columns and missing deck sections will also be replaced and/or repaired. The rest of the structure will be rebuilt/refurbished in a new, contemporary, design.
The Grade II listed landmark became property of Hastings Pier Charity (HPC) in August 2013. So far HPC have raised £13.7m but need a further £500k to complete the project. This regeneration enterprise is funded via a combination of £11.4m awarded by the Heritage Lottery Fund together £2m raised by public donation and institutional sources. It is hoped that the £500k shortfall will be filled via a Community Share Scheme, whereby members of the public have until early April 2014 to purchase £1 shares (to a minimum value of £100 per person). The first £200k of this shortfall is required to fund a walkway over the sea. Hastings Pier was originally built under an 1867 Act of Parliament which allowed local investors to subscribe to its construction. Back then, a total of £25,000 was raised and the pier cost £23,250 to build.
The rise and fall and rise again of Hastings Pier is now the subject of a major new BBC documentary by Producer/Director Matthew Wheeler. The End of The Pier Show will be shown on BBC2, at 5.30pm, Sunday 16th March. The programme is a celebration of the golden age of the British seaside pier as well as exploring its fascinating two hundred year old history. There are also on-screen contributions from me.
2014 marks the bicentenary of Britain’s first pier which opened in Ryde, Isle of Wight, on the 26th July, 1814. On the 12th July, 1880, a railway opened on the pier and in 1924, Southern Railway took over its ownership. When the pier opened it was extremely popular.
Shortly after Ryde Pier opened, The Royal Pier Hotel was built in the town, specifically to cater for increased number of passengers visiting the attraction. After the Second World War, the pier’s pavilion concert hall was converted into a ballroom, known in the 1950s as the Seagull Ballroom. The structure is now Grade II listed.
I have long had an interest in the social history of piers and seaside culture. Perhaps this is due, in part, to having spent my childhood growing-up on the South Coast of England and taking regular trips to the seaside with my family. I also lived in Hastings for many years and remember its pier very well, so am delighted that it is being given a new lease of life.
Hastings Pier opened on St. Lubbock’s Day, Monday 5th August, 1872. Unfortunately, the day was blighted by torrential rain and storms; perhaps an omen for the pier’s future which has been blighted by fires, storms, bombings and an arson attack. On its opening day, a special train service ran from London Bridge at 08.30am direct to Hastings, costing five shillings for a return fare. The ceremony had all the pomp you would expect from a grand civic occasion in Victorian Britain. One contemporary newspaper article reported:
The rain being heavy the streets were not very crowded, and nearly everyone carried an umbrella. The pier was gaily decorated with innumerable flags floating from the sides, and volunteers and fireman lined the approach to the pavilion. When the Lord Warden arrived at the entrance he was loudly cheered. Protected by a waterproof, he walked up the pier during a pelting rain, being preceded by the Royal Marine band playing, the coastguardsmen, the Mayor and corporation, and the principal functionaries of the pier company. The Countess Granville found shelter from the storm in a bath chair and Mrs Brassey, the wife of the member for the borough, and some other ladies reached the pavilion by joining the procession in the same kind of vehicle.
The pier was located on the Hastings side of the dividing line between Hastings and St. Leonards, opposite the Sussex Infirmary which was eventually knocked down to make way for the White Rock Theatre (opened 1927). The pier’s architect, Eugenius Birch (1818-1884), built many of Britain’s iconic piers including Eastbourne, Bournemouth, Margate, and the former West Pier in Brighton.
Birch was a brilliant engineer who is credited with being the first pier architect to use screw piling to stabilise his structures. Hastings had three hundred and sixty cast-iron columns fixed using this method. Birch’s architectural design for Hastings Pier was in the Alhambra style, a Moorish inspired aesthetic which gave the building an air of exoticism and sought to inspire in its visitors a mix of fantasy scenarios and promise of hedonistic pleasures.
Prior to the Victorian era, a visit to the seaside had been the preserve of well-to-do aristocrats who would have had enough money to support such a trip. These jaunts were predominantly to ‘take the sea air’. Salt-water bathing was considered the very best cure for aches and pains, as well promoting all-round well-being. During the eighteenth century, the concept of a ‘seaside resort’ developed in tandem with the ‘health resort’. King George III (1738-1820) helped to popularise sea bathing and regularly visited Weymouth in Dorset. His first visit was in 1789 when he hoped that the sea water and fresh air would aid recovery from his first attack of porphyria. He continued to visit Weymouth regularly until 1805. The transition of the seaside from a medicinal haven to a resort bursting with leisure pursuits and activities, is perfectly illustrated by the social history of the pier.
Historically, piers have always been revenue generating. Halfpenny would get you onto the pier, sixpence into the pavilion or dance hall at the end and of course a small fee of a penny to hire a deck chair or sit down on the fixed seating lining the promenade deck. Hastings had two thousand six hundred feet of continuous seating and a pavilion with seating enough for two thousand patrons. On both sides of the pavilion there were landing stages that were suitable for pleasure steamers, row-boats and yachts to pull-up alongside. This would certainly have helped to increase visitor numbers to the pier. During its first decade of trading, Hastings Pier was extremely successful and on St. Lubbock’s Day, Monday 6th August, 1883, approximately nine thousand four hundred people passed through its turnstiles in just one day. A healthy footfall for a leisure attraction even by today’s standards. It is no wonder then, local governments in late Victorian Britain considered the pier a worthy financial investment.
The Industrial Revolution had transformed Britain’s travel infrastructure resulting in the expansion of canal ways and of course the development of an extensive rail network connecting inland towns to seaside locations. The pier became the epicentre of any vibrant seaside venue, a pleasure palace where the holiday maker could forget their woes for an afternoon. The greater range of attractions and facilities offered by a pier, the more enticing it would be. Visitors also needed places to stay, eat and shop which meant that the rest of the town profited. A seaside town with its own pier, made good financial sense.
The history of the British pier is also interwoven with the history of class and social conventions. Victorians and Edwardians were fixated with strict codes of conduct and social hierarchy, whether it was in the workplace, travelling, in the home or leisure activities, cross-class interaction was strongly discouraged by the ruling elite. However, the pier is one of the few spaces where these rules appear to have been relaxed a little. Perhaps due in part to the fact that the structure, although connected to the land, was sufficiently distanced from it so as to create a sort of ‘no-man’s-land’ where nobody really knew what rules to adhere to.
The pier became a melting pot of people drawn from all walks of life both male and female. Unchaperoned young ladies could promenade, accompanied by their female companions, with little disapproval. However, liberal attitudes must have been pushed to their limits on Bournemouth pier. In the early 1900s, a bylaw was introduced to prohibit loitering on the pier for the purposes of prostitution!
The Industrial Revolution had also created a new social infrastructure. The emerging middle classes had surplus income and skilled working people were now better paid. Consequently, by the end of the nineteenth Century, Britain’s economy was booming and leisure pursuits were increasingly popular. The Bank Holiday Act of 1871 was passed by Liberal politician and banker Sir John Lubbock (1834-1913) which designated four public holidays every year. The August public holiday (known as St. Lubbock’s Day in honour of Sir John) was traditionally set as the first Monday in the month and remained so for the following hundred years until 1971, when it changed to the last Monday in August and remains in place to this day. A newspaper reporting in 1872 about the new Bank holidays observed:
Employers have found that a day’s re-cooperation is not a day lost for themselves or their servants. The day’s leisure secured, then comes the question, how it is to be enjoyed; and here the facilities are increasing to a manifold extent. The railways running from London put forth tempting programmes of excursions to all the most pleasant places in our isle. Our readers may be glad to be reminded that trains for Dover leave the South Eastern station at London Bridge at 07.55am, and for Margate and Ramsgate at 07.40am. The new pier at Hastings is to be opened on Monday, and a train will run from London Bridge 08.30am, the return fare being five shillings. The Great Eastern will run the usual excursions from Bishopsgate to Hunstanton and to Harwich, Dovercoart, and Walton-on the Naze; and, in common with most other lines, offers an extended time for ordinary return tickets over the Bank holiday.
The Saturday to Tuesday excursions to the Isle of Wight offer a delightful holiday; while for those who cannot spare the time a day trip is arranged for Monday. While thousands will be drawn to the coast by the attractions of yellow sands and the prospect of a dip in the briny, there are a few who will prefer the calmer pleasures of rural scenery. At this season we are looking forward to a more extended holiday than that of a single day, and are preparing for tours in all directions. The Graphotyping company opportunely send us a parcel of their instructive and valuable shilling guidebooks, which we cordially recommend to travellers. All the books are embellished with maps and illustrations.
St. Lubbock’s Day was more popular in the south than the north where ‘wakes week’ were favoured. The wakes week began in the Industrial Revolution and consisted of a week’s unpaid leave, taken during the months of June to September, in which the factories, mills, collieries and other industrial outlets closed to enable workers to have a rest or take a holiday. During wakes week, firms often provided transport to the seaside for their workers. A holiday to the seaside was a popular choice for families if they could afford the return train fares.
Tourist guidebooks during the late Victorian era right-up until the Second World War were very popular. Even during the late Victorian era and for those who could afford it, short trips to Paris, France were also an option. Following the advent of motor travel, at the end of the nineteenth century, tourist guidebooks quickly developed into bulging tomes packed full of endless travel possibilities throughout the British Isles.
By the outbreak of war in 1939, approximately fifteen million people a year were visiting British seaside resorts. These resorts needed to offer the casual day-tripper, as well as the long stay holiday-maker, an excellent range of activities. Resorts became a one-stop destination seeking to satisfy all of your holiday requirements. Competition between towns to attract visitors was very fierce indeed.
Hastings Pier had an impressive selection of facilities including a bowling alley (1910), shooting gallery, bingo hall and from the 1930s a Camera Obscura (so too did Eastbourne Pier). Roller skating rinks could also be found on a number of piers. This was an activity first popularised by the Edwardians and continued to be a favourite with visitors until the 1970s. St. Leonards pier (which no longer exists) had a rink, so too did Boscombe (from the 1960s); South Parade Pier and Clarence Pier in Southsea; Southampton’s Royal Pier (1906); Victoria Pier, Folkestone (1910) had the ‘Olympia’ rink on the shoreline, to the pier’s west.
Bournemouth took a rather novel approach to this craze and instead of a purpose-built rink, they installed hard-wearing, teak decking so that visitors could roller-skate along the length of the pier. Southsea in fact boasted two roller rinks, one at the end of South Parade pier and The Open Air Roller Rink and Dance Floor located at the Bandstand Enclosure on the nearby Common.
Andrew and Robert Pearce, Southsea businessmen and owners of two award-winning bridal shops in the area (Creatiques and Inspired Bridal by Creatiques) recently shared with me their childhood memories of Summers spent in Southsea. Robert told me: ‘My family have always lived in the area and we regularly took trips to Southsea seafront. I loved to roller skate when I was a teenager. I used to skate quite a bit on the rink at South Parade Pier.’ I am grateful to Robert for providing me with the above photograph, taken in the 1920s, showing his grandparents on Southsea beach. South Parade Pier is just about visible in the background. I have also found a charming photograph, from c1908, showing two young ladies roller skating on the pier’s rink. Click Here.
During the Second World War, south coast piers, including Hastings, were breached, usually in the middle section, to hamper an invasion attempt and stop the pier being used as a landing stage. The only time in their history when these structures have been deliberately disconnected from the land. During the war, Hastings Pier was taken over by the armed forces and did suffer quite a bit of bomb damage as well as near-misses by V1 and V2 rockets. The pier re-opened to the public in 1946.
The pier enjoyed a second Golden Age in the 1950s, particularly during the decade’s latter half. Car ownership had increased and Britain was in the midst of a consumer credit boom. Day trips to the seaside were back in vogue and the pier was once again an entertainment hub to be found at the heart of nearly every British seaside resort.
Many big names from the world of variety took-up summer residencies at pier theatres, pavilions or dance halls along the coast. Bournemouth was a favourite of Sid James, Arthur Askey and Freddie Frinton, Brighton attracted light entertainment favourites Dick Emery, Tommy Trinder and Doris and Elsie Waters.
Portsmouth at one time had four piers: The Albert (1847), The Victoria (1842), The Clarence (1860) and South Parade, Southsea (1879). The latter three were pleasure piers and The Albert was used predominately as a landing stage, it no longer exists but today the Harbour railway station operates on the same site. The Victoria was originally built as a landing stage for the steam packet ferry trade to the Isle of Wight and France. When The Clarence opened in 1860, the Victoria’s popularity declined. The current Victoria Pier, dates from 1930.
During Summer months in the 1950s, South Parade Pier had band concerts in the pavilion every Sunday evening, Sid and Woolf Phillips, Tito Burns, Harry Gold and his Pieces of Eight with Sam Costa, Jack Parnell, Dickie Valentine, Lita Rosa and Dennis Lotis were just some of the headline acts. South Parade’s variety acts included Harry Secombe, Peter Sellers, Bob Monkhouse and Derek Roy, playing to full houses every night. In 1974, the pavilion and main building on the pier burnt down during the filming of Tommy (1975) dircted by Ken Russell. It had to be rebuilt the following year at a cost of £600,000.
Unfortunately, these halcyon days did not last for long. During the 1960s, cheap foreign air travel and continental package holidays posed a threat to the pier’s survival. Holidaymakers could now jet-off abroad and enjoy guaranteed sunshine by the sea. By the early 1970s, a number of piers had fallen into a state of disrepair, revenue had dwindled and further investment looked unlikely. Sadly, many piers never recovered. Neglect as well as ownership issues were by-products of a British iconic that the public had simply fallen out of love with. It is only in recent years that interest in reviving and restoring these structures has gained momentum. Perhaps driven by the current trend for nostalgia coupled with the popularity of ‘staycationing’ due to the sluggish economy. Whatever the reason, the important point to make is that some of these structures, such as Hastings pier, are now being given a second chance to become a thriving seaside attraction once more.
According to the National Piers Society, there are currently fifty-eight piers still surviving in Britain today, quite a few only just, for example Victoria Pier in Colwyn Bay and Birnbeck Pier in Weston-Super-Mare. The list of piers that have been lost forever now totals forty-one.
- The End of The Pier Show documentary will be shown on BBC2, at 5.30pm, Sunday 16th March. The programme is a celebration of the golden age of the British seaside pier as well as exploring its fascinating two hundred year old history. Radio Times have selected it as one of their TV picks for Sunday, 16th March, so do please tune-in or catch it on iPlayer later. Click here. Jane Rackham writes:
This rather jolly documentary about Hastings pier was originally shown in the South East region earlier this year. But the demise of the seaside pier is a familiar tale repeated all around our coast and so a wider audience deserves to see it. Much like a stick of rock there are glorious old photos and film clips all the way through it, although the footage of the 2010 fire that threatened to make it Britain’s 42nd lost pier is a sad sight. Happily the much-loved structure is being restored to its glory days when 56,000 people passed through its turnstiles in just one week. Worth watching wherever you live.